The Corner

Religion

The Ultimate Question of Life’s Origins

No intellectually challenging idea has attracted more uninformed criticism than intelligent design. That includes smart people like National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who’s made a habit of it. Here he is commenting on “The Politics of Snobbery, and Its Inverse” (my emphasis):

The Republicans, for their part, have devolved from the holier-than-thou party of the Moral Majority to the prolier-than-thou party of Donald Trump, the party that talks about the “Real America” in accents purporting to be Texan but native to no part of the Lone Star State, the party of Duck Dynasty and bad FM country music, the party of such daft rube-bait as “intelligent design,” and the party that sneers at many of the most successful parts of this country — Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Ivy League, Hollywood — as cultural sewers.

The Democrats have become the party of snobbery. Consider those endless fights over the treatment of evolution in high-school textbooks. Nobody seriously believes that if a high-school science teacher in Muleshoe, Texas, is legally permitted to mention heterodox views of evolution, in 20 years’ time Stanford and MIT will be intellectual backwaters. Those fights aren’t about science — do you hear progressives hounding the Washington Post about its horoscopes or lamenting Obamacare’s blessing of sundry New Age quackeries? — they’re about the loathing of those people.

There’s some truth here. Loathing the “downscale” deplorables, the kind whose communities “deserve to die” (as Kevin has written), is certainly a driver of liberalism today. That does represent a shift. What about the idea that skepticism regarding Darwinism, or sympathy for intelligent design, that “daft rube-bait,” also represents a shift? Or the notion that worrying about how evolution is taught in public schools is, but for the social opprobrium, on a level with “horoscopes” or “New Age quackery”?

From this and previous comments of his, I’m pretty sure that Williamson has little or no idea how advocates of intelligent design make their case, identifying scientific evidence of a guiding purpose at work in biology and cosmology, as against Darwinism’s insistence on blind processes alone.

Williamson and I are alike in idolizing NR’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., and Kevin has written movingly about his interactions with WFB. I am surprised that he doesn’t seem to know that many of the great figures of the conservative intellectual past, including Buckley, tended toward skepticism on Darwinism or sympathy for design — in no particular order, Richard John Neuhaus, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Tom Wolfe, Richard Weaver. In Witness, Whittaker Chambers beautifully described awaking from the spell of Communism upon contemplating the “immense design” of his little daughter’s ear. Buckley hosted a Firing Line debate on intelligent design, which he argued for alongside his fellow debaters, mathematician David Berlinski, biochemist Michael Behe, and U.C. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, all affiliated with Discovery Institute. Commentary published Berlinski’s great series of attacks on Darwinian orthodoxy. And so on.

Of course citing the fathers of conservatism on a scientific problem doesn’t settle anything, other than urging us that laymen are allowed to wrestle for themselves with this ultimate question of life’s origins. If they’re allowed, then, given the obvious importance of the issue, I would say they are also obliged.

I was the layman who happened to be the literary editor on duty at NR in 1996 when Michael Behe’s first book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, was published. The book launched the modern ID movement, which has historical roots in the thinking of the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who broke with Darwin over what Wesley Smith calls “human exceptionalism.”

I assigned it to University of Chicago microbiologist James A. Shapiro. His review, while rejecting the book’s positive case for design, was sufficiently laudatory to supply a blurb for the paperback, praising Behe for a “valuable critique of an all-too-often unchallenged orthodoxy.”

The science has evolved since then but not in a way favorable to standard evolutionary thinking. Shapiro and other skeptics have gone on to join forces as the “Third Way” on evolution — rejecting intelligent design, yes, but seeking an alternative to Darwinism. They gathered at a significant 2016 conference of the Royal Society in London, where Isaac Newton once presided, recognizing that the old standby, natural selection operating on random mutation, is not equipped to produce the wonders of biology.

A bunch of rubes, you say? If you want to judge for yourself, two recent books to consider are Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt. Behe’s forthcoming book, Darwin Devolves, extends his argument for design. You could also do worse than to start with a 20-minute video from Discovery Institute that I wrote, “The Information Enigma.”

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